John Updike—that late, great genius of the short story–once wrote that he reads other writers only for one reason: to plunder. When I taught Creative Writing, this is one of the quotes I’d trot out for the kids. And this little nugget would upset my students very much because they had just learned that plagiarism was bad—really bad. “Isn’t that cheating?” someone always asked.
Plagiarism is terrible. But this is not what Updike meant by his colorful term “plunder”: he wanted to see how sentences were constructed, plots arranged, characters developed. And then he took something away from it—and this take-away is what he lived for. It was the treasure that he pirated, pillaged, plundered. Every writer is at heart a pirate.
I am reading James Lee Burke’s amazing novel Burning Angel—the story of a Louisiana detective caught up in a paramilitary intrigue and I’m doing so because I want to learn…ummm, I mean….plunder. It’s got colorful characters in a cool setting. And a first person narration in a distinctive regional voice. So, when I picked up the book, I was a pirate who had my sights set on a certain type of booty. I thought that’s what I’m going to plunder. How does that man get a sense of time and place? How does he keep his voice interesting?
But the glimmering treasure I was after was not what I took away. What did I plunder….umm learn? Well, every male character in this yarn is sexy. The main character, the villain—both all around hotties. Hell, even when the villain meets up with the protagonist while jogging, the main character notes his sexiness in a decidedly appreciative non-gay way—checking out his rippling muscles and even the firm buttocks which, he observes, a woman might squeeze in the throes of sexual congress.
The men in James Lee Burke’s novel ooze testosterone. They’re not GQ pretty-boys. They’re real men who train at boxing and have chest hair and are damaged by war and sweat buckets of musky man-scent, so powerful it could be harvested to make a thermonuclear cologne. They have real scars and tattoos and women can’t resist that. So, that’s my take-away: the treasure that I hauled back onto my galleon. My character is going to be sexy. And he’s going to have more sex. It makes for good action. It gets him into places and situations that move the narrative. A healthy sex life, I’ve discovered, translates into a page-turner.